Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Politics as Popular Culture: Of Fracking, Whiteness, and the Movie "Promised Land"

I am lucky in that We Are Respectable Negroes has allowed me the opportunity to chat with a wide range of smart people. In keeping with the "We" in We Are Respectable Negroes, I occasionally feature essays by guest writers.

There are a few repeat folks in the permanent rotation such as Werner Herzog's Bear and Bill the Lizard. Hopefully, I will be able to add a few more to the guest list who sit in on occasion, playing a set or two, in the proverbial jam session here at WARN.

Ben Cooper is offering up some smart analysis in his essay on the movie Promised Land. We first chatted about the TV series The Walking Dead. There, I knew Mr. Cooper had some skills. In this guest post about race, environmental policy, and the movie Promised Land with Matt Damon, I do think that my assessment of his skills were spot on. 

I love a good movie. I thoroughly enjoy a critical read of a popular film which treats it as a serious text that reflects on politics in a transparent and direct manner. Oftentimes race and other issues of identity and power work, most powerfully, in ways where the casual viewer would not see them as being operative. Power is coercive. It is subtle. Power, I would suggest, is also at its most compelling when it is omnipresent--thus rendering it invisible. Promised Land is a vivid--and under appreciated--example of these traits in action.

What do you think of Ben Cooper's first guest post? And do welcome him to WARN if so inclined...
I've been reading the critical reaction to Promised Land, the recent feature-length release that uses the setting of a rural, fictitious town to make an argument against natural gas mining process called fracking. The movie hasn't performed very well among critics, with most dismissing Promised Land as a well-intentioned yet heavily clichéd "message movie", a movie that is much more focused on making a specific point then telling a dramatically engaging story.

One of the film's criticisms came from Tom Carson in an article he wrote for The American Prospect titled "Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A." 

In his article, Carson argues this: "Political issues come and go, but message movies never change..."

What, I wonder, is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land? The unconverted obviously won't go, and the converted won't learn anything they don't know—except, maybe, a few tidbits confirming their suspicion that Hollywood doesn't know enough about 'ordinary' Americans to be trustworthy even when agitating on their behalf. The point of projects like this one can't be merely to gratify the filmmakers' sense of virtue, can it? Unfortunately, of course it can. If you'll forgive me for paraphrasing Megyn Kelly, they're just math celebrities do as liberals to make themselves feel better."

Well, Mr. Carson, I'll see your argument over Promised Land's liberal feel-good math and raise you Promised Land's refusal to acknowledge the fossil fuel industry's long history of environmental exploitation and the United States' collective enablement of such exploitation. I don't like message movies as much as the next pop culture consumer, but there are times when I look at even the most genteel and well-intentioned message movie and wonder, "What planet are you living on?" The release of Promised Land is one of those times.

I understand the rhetorical strategy behind the film's script was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski: By setting the story in a location that most white American people identify as "traditional"--namely, a rural small town--and then endangering that setting with a controversial subject--such as fracking--white American audiences will be more inclined to sympathize with the besieged and revile the besieger. To follow Carson's argument, such simple-minded plotting robs the script of any real drama--as he put it, the characters "tiresomely shuffle toward incarnating their representative debate roles"--and thus has no impact on public perceptions on fracking. On that, Carson is right.

To consider this film in a broader perspective, both Promised Land and its viewers lose because the film does nothing to touch on the United States' long relationship with environmental exploitation. The exploitation of natural resources and the decimation of traditional cultures that rely on those resources is as old as the United States itself; in fact, there wouldn't even be a United States if the drive to plunder this continent's resources and push its original inhabitants aside by whatever means necessary didn't already exist. The predictability of Promised Land doesn't bother me, but its absolute lack of scope leaves me speechless.

Maybe it's the film's title that grates on me the most. "Promised Land" is an explicit nod to the Old Testament usage of the term, a term to identify a land as being sacred if it is promised by a deity to his or her followers. Yet while Promised Land depicts white American people fighting to preserve their promised land--land promised to them by the colonialist gospels of the Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery--the fossil fuel industry and its cohorts have been repeatedly desecrating the promised lands of indigenous cultures both here and around the world.

The scenario that's depicted as fiction in Promised Land has played itself out with much grimmer outcomes in locations all over the world for centuries. Uranium mining waste in Navajo land, oil spills in the Amazon and the Niger Delta, waste dumping off the coast of Somalia, cell phone metal mining in the Congo, tar sands exploitation in First Nations territory in Canada  ... the list goes on and on and on. 

Between the mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the gulf coast, you'd think that white American culture would be a bit more sensitive to environmental exploitation and the pollution, poverty and illness its leaves behind. Yet here we are at the beginning of 2013, with a ham-fisted message movie that feebly address the danger surrounding the latest incarnation of fossil fuel extraction. What's wrong with this picture?

To be sure, I've noticed this pattern before. I remember how in 2009 the media was fawning over Avatar, a mega-million-dollar movie about a fake indigenous culture that fights to protect its fake environment from a fake developer and his army of fake mercenaries, while paying little attention to Crude, a documentary that was released shortly before Avatar and featured real indigenous people fighting against real environmental degradation perpetrated by real fossil fuel companies.

I believe that there are both racial and cultural components to white America's ongoing indecisiveness regarding the damaging influence of fossil fuels. It could be that middle-class white folks still see themselves as insulated from the environmental exploitation experienced by poor, non-Western, non-white communities, no matter how much the practice of fracking--as well as the widening income gap between the mega-rich and everyone else--looks to change that reality in the near future. 

In other words, white middle-class communities concern themselves over recycling plastic water bottles, while poor non-white communities concern themselves with access to clean drinking water. 

I also think that the white American concept of land ownership has something to do with this as well. Essentially, it's a belief that ownership of land can lead to wealth and power, which in turn bequeaths status, privilege and respect; therefore, to interfere with the American ideal of land ownership is to interfere with the American ideal of progress and prosperity. 

Further complicating this belief is the concept of land development, the notion that land is only worth something if it can be used to generate revenue; consequently, land that is torn apart as quickly and restraint-free as possible to extract its material wealth is worth much more than if the land was left in its original state. That's why the fossil fuel industry has yet to be concerned about the melting polar ice caps; as far as it is concerned, the ice caps were just obstacles to claiming and accessing even more fossil fuel.

With this in mind, I can only conclude that message movies like Promised Land really are feel-good movies, but not just for liberals--they are feel-good movies for everyone who doesn't want to seriously question America’s colonial, imperialist history and challenge the common, accepted beliefs surrounding land ownership and development. 

Going beyond that, one question should be asked: If white mainstream culture cannot hold itself accountable for the pro-colonial, pro-exploitation ideology that enables its consumer-driven lifestyle, can the fossil fuel industry ever be held truly accountable and brought to justice before all of the promised lands are gone?


Constructive_Feedback said...

Are YOU going to use the Natural Gas that is produced from fracking - to keep your cat warm?

Nuff Said.

(I have never seen an embroidered shirt with that pattern on a Negro before. Are you in a Mariachi band on the lo lo?)

CNu said...

If white mainstream culture cannot hold itself accountable for the pro-colonial, pro-exploitation ideology that enables its consumer-driven lifestyle, can the fossil fuel industry ever be held truly accountable and brought to justice


hold itself accountable to whom?

brought to justice by whom?

The absurdity inherent in this refrain is second only to the superfluous labelling of the American system of production as "white".

Con-Feed is spot-on for a change inasmuch as he correctly indicts your shared and celebrated "way of life" as the undeniable essence of your own polity and political persuasion.

No one celebrates the "polity as way of life" more completely than one who celebrates the Hon.Bro.Preznit Stephen Obama as the brilliant exemplar and commander in chief of the American system of production.

Is it time then to indict Obama and have a little executive rendition to the Hague for justice?

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